UNION, NJ — Carl Laggren, a Union resident for more than 50 years, vividly recalls entering Berlin in the summer 1961.
As he looked around, he saw dozens and dozens of destroyed buildings and a city that was in total disarray.
“I went to the city and just saw an immense amount of destruction,” Laggren said in a Feb. 11 interview with LocalSource as he approached his 97th birthday Feb. 20. “We had dropped many bombs and there weren’t many structures left standing.”
Laggren is one of fewer than 500,000 American veterans still alive of the 16 million who served in the U.S. military during World War II, and one of about 16,000 in New Jersey as of 2018, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
He was just 20 years old when he joined the Army Air Corps — which later became the U.S. Air Force — in 1942. From there, Laggren attended Air Force Engineering School to become a fighter pilot advanced training instructor. That eventually took him to the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Authority in Selma, Ala.
“I remember being there for a long, long time,” he said. “But I’ve always been very proud of my fighter pilot work, especially with training the younger kids to be fighters.”
“I was really hoping to get over there and fight for my country,” he said. “We all sort of hoped that.”
Laggren remained in the service after the war, saw service during the Korean War and was assigned overseas to a small, quaint village in France for more than 13 months during the Berlin Crisis of 1958 to 1961. There he worked as a maintenance officer for more than 20 fighter planes during a diplomatic standoff caused by the Soviet Union’s demand that Western allies withdraw their troops from Berlin. The result was the Berlin Wall.
Laggren remembers driving along the autobahn in Germany in his uniform and being stopped by German police on occasions when he would drive there. He said he would have to listen to “awful music” for more than a half hour while stopped and that, since the German police controlled the autobahn, they could do anything they wanted.
They “felt that they could do anything, like hold people for a half hour,” he said. “Everyone that went onto the autobahn in uniform went through the same thing. I just couldn’t understand the music.”
Laggren eventually became a flight instructor and taught new pilots how to fly fighter planes. He laughed when said that one of his favorite aspects of being an instructor was taking the new pilots on their first, very bumpy, flights.
“I would take them up and do all kinds of rolls with them,” he said. “When you teach somebody acrobatics, they’re very uncoordinated and that very often makes them sick.”
Laggren’s nephew and caregiver, Chris Barton, confirmed the tales during the interview, saying he had heard them before.
“He would tell me that he liked torturing the new ones who hadn’t really flown much,” Barton said during the interview. “It was all just a way to teach.”
Laggren said he flew several different planes, such as the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt, two WWII piston-engine fighters, and the B-24 Liberator bomber, another WWII aircraft.
“My big effort was to fly single-engine jets and I certainly did that,” he said.
After returning home from his time in France, Laggren started his business, Princeton Case Company, on Lehigh Avenue in Union in 1964, and now owns Princeton Case West in California with his son, Douglas, who resides on the West Coast. Laggren had another son, Lawrence, who died at age 19 of cancer.
Along with Betty, his wife of 72 years, Laggren volunteered with the county’s Boys and Girls Club, and together they started a program called “Senior Net” to teach computer skills to older adults.
The couple first met when Laggren was working as a gas attendant on Broad Street in Elizabeth when Betty pulled up to the station. As he was filling up her gas tank, Laggren recalled being so captivated by her that he spilled gas all over himself.
“Well, I was just so nervous,” he said of that first encounter. “I sprayed gas all over my pants because I was so distracted that it overflowed.”
Betty worked as a headmistress at Vail-Deane Academy in Elizabeth and Laggren said that having different careers added to the success of their marriage.
“We lived the happiest life that you have ever seen. We were both tough guys, you know?” Laggren said. “We lived two different lives, careerwise, so we never conflicted in that way.”
Betty died at age 94 in 2016, and he keeps an old bell of hers that she used during her time as headmistress.
“Being married for over 70 years means that you certainly must be in love. It’s a must, you know,” he said while ringing the bell. “I do miss her very much.”